Four weeks into COVID-19 vaccinations at Illinois nursing homes, nearly 80% of the doses for the campaign are waiting for use, but the pharmacy chains performing the work say everything is going according to plan.
CVS Health and Walgreens have administered only 110,403 of the 550,050 doses that Illinois has received for residents and staff members of long-term care facilities, according to state public-health data posted Monday.
“Walgreens has remained on track to immunize our most vulnerable populations,” wrote Phil Caruso, a spokesman of the Deerfield-based company.
A CVS statement said company teams are “efficiently and methodically transporting vaccines to long-term care facilities and getting them in the arms of seniors” and that the injections “are increasing daily at an impressive rate.”
As the pharmacy giants tout their performance, industry officials and public-health leaders are voicing alarm.
“The distribution of the vaccines to long-term care settings, where the most vulnerable population resides, is not fast enough and it must, must improve,” said Karen Messer, head of LeadingAge Illinois, which lobbies for 380 congregate-care sites, mostly nonprofits.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last fall contracted with CVS and Walgreens to inoculate people with ties to long-term care across the country. Under the plan, the pharmacies prioritize skilled-nursing facilities, then assisted-living and other congregate homes. The companies give second injections three to four weeks after the first shots. They visit a third time for anyone who missed an earlier shot.
In Illinois, the vaccinations began Dec. 28. The state announced on Friday it expects CVS and Walgreens to have visited all sites to provide at least their first doses by Feb. 15.
Monday’s Illinois Department of Public Health posting, however, shows the pharmacy chains have used just 20.1% of the doses allocated for nursing-home residents and staffers — an allocation that falls far short of the doses needed to give two shots to each of the estimated 360,000 Illinoisans who could qualify.
Vaccinating that group should not be such a heavy lift, said Dr. Ronald Hershow, who directs epidemiology and biostatistics in the University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Public Health.
“You have a captive population in these facilities,” said Hershow, who serves on a team advising IDPH on its COVID-19 responses. “It doesn’t seem like it should be as logistically difficult as [vaccinating] the general population.”
CVS and Walgreens are showing they “don’t have the capacity to move quicker,” said Shaba Andrich, vice president of a Service Employees International Union branch that represents workers at nearly 150 long-term care sites in Illinois, mostly skilled-nursing facilities.
Illinois nursing homes continue to play an outsize role in the COVID-19 crisis. Their residents accounted for 1,705 coronavirus infections and 277 deaths recorded by IDPH during the week that ended Friday. As in the past, those fatalities made up about half of the state’s total coronavirus deaths during the week.
Vaccination delays are particularly dangerous as a more contagious strain of the virus pops up across the United States, Hershow said.
Gov. JB Pritzker’s administration and the pharmacies, meantime, are blaming each other for the slow pace of nursing-home vaccinations.
A statement from IDPH spokeswoman Melaney Arnold said the vaccine doses “are available to the pharmacy partners as soon as their staff schedules visits” to the nursing homes.
Arnold also tied the vaccination pace to CVS and Walgreens hiring: “Pharmacy partners are working to increase their staffing so that available doses can be administered more quickly.”
Neither CVS nor Walgreens answered how many employees are assigned to the vaccinations in Illinois long-term care sites. But both companies said their hiring was sufficient.
“We are confident in how we are staffing to support this effort,” Caruso, the Walgreens spokesman, wrote.
A statement from CVS said that firm’s “immunizers” are “certified according to company requirements, trained in the administration of immunizations, and hold an active CPR certification.”
“Our COVID-19 vaccination effort will not be at the expense of maintaining the high-quality service we provide to patients in our pharmacies,” the statement said.
The CVS statement said the vaccination pace is tied to the schedule devised by the Pritzker administration.
“Our effort to administer COVID-19 vaccine to the long-term care community in Illinois is going according to plan and in close coordination with the state,” the CVS statement said.
CVS also pointed to time-consuming vaccinations when pharmacy staffers have to go room to room and “change their personal protective equipment each time.”
Other hurdles, the company said, include “confirming vaccine availability, the winter holidays, vaccine hesitancy among eligible populations, and active COVID-19 outbreaks at some scheduled facilities.”